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Review of  Reconstructing Proto-Nostratic

Reviewer: 'Simonetta M. Pelusi' ['Simonetta M. Pelusi'] Simonetta M. Pelusi
Book Title: Reconstructing Proto-Nostratic
Book Author: Allan Bomhard
Publisher: Brill
Linguistic Field(s): Historical Linguistics
Genetic Classification
Language Family(ies): Nostratic
Book Announcement: 20.2346

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AUTHOR: Bomhard, Allan R.
TITLE: Reconstructing Proto-Nostratic
SUBTITLE: Comparative Phonology, Morphology, and Vocabulary
SERIES: Leiden Indo-European Etymological Dictionary Series, 6
YEAR: 2008

Simonetta Pelusi, Formerly Professor of Slavic Linguistics and Philology,
Cassino and Trieste Universities

In the second half of the 20th century, the Soviet scholar V.M. Illiè-Svityè
(prematurely dead in 1966) presented a set of studies devoted to demonstrate a
genetic relationship among some indigenous linguistic families of northern and
central Eurasia, Near East and Northern Africa; the postulated macro-family was
called Nostratic, a term created in 1903 by the Danish linguist Holger Pedersen
(from the Latin word ''nostras'', meaning 'our fellow-countryman', plural:
''nostrates''). Evidence in favor of Nostratic is based on regular correspondences
among proto-languages spread through the aforementioned areas, etymological
forms referring to a basic lexicon, and reconstructed grammatical morphemes. The
''Nostratic hypothesis'' is still controversial; considered highly speculative, is
rejected by many specialists, and Nostraticists often disagree with each other;
nevertheless, it is also a stimulus for further research into distant
relationships among languages.

With this ponderous work (two volumes, xxi, 875 + 976 pages), Allan R. Bomhard
presents a detailed study of all the aspects of Proto-Indoeuropean, in
comparison with other proto-languages of Northern Eurasia, Middle East, and
Indian subcontinent, with the aim of demonstrating that Proto-Indoeuropean is
not a genetically isolated language, but must be considered as a part of the
Nostratic larger linguistic macrofamily. In the meantime a Nostratic Dictionary
has been published by Dolgopolsky (2008, online version), but perhaps in
Bomhard's work for the first time the Nostratic question, as well its ''status
artis'', is globally examined and presented in all its features: phonology,
morphology, syntax, putative homeland, ending with a semantic index and a
comparative vocabulary, which could be considered the summa of pluridecennial
studies of Allan Bomhard, as he remembers in his Preface.

The book, in two volumes, is divided into three main parts: Part 1:
Introduction, comparative phonology, homelands, etc.; Part 2: Comparative
morphology; Part 3: Comparative vocabulary.

The first part (pp. 1-271), divided into 15 sections, begins with an
introduction of methodological character (1. Introduction, history of research,
and methodology), to which follow: 2. A survey of Nostratic languages; 3. A
brief history of the reconstruction of the Proto-Indo-European phonological
system; 4. The reconstruction of the Proto-Indo-European phonological system; 5.
An outline of the development of the PIE stop system in the Indo-European
daughter languages; 6. A sketch of Proto-Kartvelian phonology; 7. A sketch of
Proto-Afrasian phonology; 8. A sketch of Proto-Uralic phonology; 9. A sketch of
Proto-Dravidian phonology; 10. A sketch of Proto-Altaic phonology; 11.
Eskimo-Aleut, Chukchi-Kamchatkan, and Gilyak; 12. A sketch of Proto-Nostratic
phonology; 13. The Nostratic homeland and the dispersal of the Nostratic
languages; 14. The origin of Etruscan; 15. Sumerian and Nostratic.

The second part (pp. 273-529), includes four sections: 16. Nostratic morphology
I: the evidence; 17. Nostratic morphology II: reconstructions; 18.
Proto-Indo-European morphology I: traditional reconstruction; 19.
Proto-Indo-European morphology II: prehistoric development. The section
References (pp. 531-756) constitutes a comprehensive bibliographic repertory up
to 2007-2008 of the studies in the field.

The first volume ends with the Index verborum. English-Nostratic index to volume
2 (pp. 757-875), an essential tool for research, which allows readers to find
Proto-Nostratic roots beginning from a concept in English, a ''semantic'' index
which increases a previous, partial and tentative one by M. Kaiser, based on
Illiè-Svityè reconstructions (Kaiser 1990).

The third part is the entire second volume: Comparative vocabulary of the
Nostratic languages (pp. 1-925), containing 857 lemmata, followed by an
Appendix: Language contact (pp. 926-976).

At the beginning, the Author explains the methodological principles used in
distant linguistic comparison (pp. 8-22), which is based on comparative method.
Bomhard's approach to language comparison in order to try to establish genetic
relationship among the various Nostratic languages and to reconstruct
Proto-Nostratic roots, is derived both from the method adopted by J.H.
Greenberg, who works with ''mass comparison'', and from traditional methods of
internal reconstruction and comparison.

According to Bomhard, the language families which can be included in the
Nostratic macro-family are: Indo-European, Uralic-Yukaghir, Altaic,
Chukchi-Kamchatkan, Gilyak, Eskimo-Aleutin, Etruscan language (all included in
the putative ''Eurasiatic''), Kartvelian, Afrasian, and Elamo-Dravidian. The
Author does not consider Sumerian as a daughter Nostratic language, but only as
an idiom distantly connected with Nostratic, rejecting his own previous opinions
about a special relationship of Sumerian to Elamo-Dravidian (p. 264); in chapter
15. he briefly analyzes some morphological and phonological features of
Sumerian, trying to show that this language is surely ''distantly related to
Nostratic'', on the basis, for instance, of possessive suffixes and pronominal
prefixes, which seem to show parallels in some Nostratic proto-languages
(Proto-Uralic, Proto-Tungus), and common Nostratic too (personal pronouns).
Therefore, as in previous works (see: Bomhard & Kerns 1994), Sumerian parallels
are presented at the end of relevant items, outside the rigorously structured
pattern of lemmata. In comparison to the Illiè-Svityè Nostratic macrofamily,
which did not include Chukchi-Kamchatkan, Eskimo-Aleutin (later added by
Dolgopolsky), Yukaghir, Gilyak (both included by Greenberg in the Eurasiatic
language family, which Bomhard includes in Nostratic; Greenberg 2000-2002),
Bomhard's Nostratic macrofamily shows an evolution, with the inclusion of the
poorly attested Etruscan, whose origin is described in chapter 14., as a
language related to Nostratic, forming, with Lemnian and Raetic, the Tyrrhenian
language family, whose mother language, Proto-Tyrrhenian, at present, unlike
Indo-European, has yet to be properly reconstructed: and this is the reason for
which Etruscan appears as an independent language, inside the related items of
the comparative vocabulary, in comparison to linguistic families related to
Nostratic. Sumerian and Etruscan are still now being considered ''isolated
languages'', without any known genetic connection (Gell-Mann, Peros & Starostin
2009), therefore their inclusion in a comparative Nostratic vocabulary could
support researchers looking for new hypothesis about their origin, with the
great amount of linguistic and bibliograpical data contanined in lemmata; it is
perhaps the first time that languages for which no proto-language has up to now
been reconstructed are used as term of comparison for Proto-Nostratic
reconstructions. Also for the first time, a great amount of material has been
included in the comparative vocabulary from Eskimo-Aleut and Chukchi-Kamchatkan;
and we must remember that, as Bomhard underlines, a Proto-Eskimo-Aleut mother
language has not yet been reconstructed till now, while, according to Fortescue,
Jakobson & Kaplan (1994), a Proto-Eskimo phonological system can be posited (p.

The book has a great potential for being a necessary complement to major books
on Indo-European, comparative phonology, comparative morphology, long-range
linguistic comparison. It is not only of interest to advanced students and
scholars of the different linguistic families and related daughter languages
concerned with Nostratic, who are interested in a critical exposition of the
history of the development of Indo-European and comparative linguistic studies,
but it also is an indispensable reference tool, providing a useful repertoire of
the main previous studies in the aforementioned linguistic families (especially
Indo-European), reference materials, bibliography (which could have been a
little slimmer if the Author had not translated into English every item in any
language different from English).

Of particular importance are the relatively concise ''sketches'' of the linguistic
families (pp. 141-216) which, in the Author's view, along with Indo-European
form the Nostratic macro-family. In the form of detailed summaries, the Author
presents an updated critical ''overview'' of the phonological systems (with
unavoidable and desirable expansion in the field of morphology) of
Proto-Kartvelian, Proto-Afrasian, Proto-Uralic, Proto-Dravidian, Proto-Altaic,
and Eskimo-Aleut, Chukchi-Kamchatkan, Gilyak; at the end of every chapter,
appears a summary table of phonological correspondences between proto-language
and daughter languages, recapitulating the chapter's content. A comparative
table of sound correspondences posited among Proto-Nostratic and related
proto-languages is given on pp. 217-220.

The author's dedication to Indo-European has an overwhelming preeminence,
compared to the space devoted to the other proto-languages; Allan Bomhard is an
Indoeuropeanist, and one can only hope specialists in other linguistic families
will further his work in the reconstruction of phonological and morphological
proto-languages systems, trying to investigate further possibilities that they
are genetically related, or may belong to the Nostratic macro-family.

To the hypothetic reconstruction of the phonological system of Proto-Nostratic,
Bomhard devotes a great part of the book (pp. 45-220). Here, we can only
summarize that in this, as in his previous works, Bomhard radically revises the
system of Nostratic phonemic correspondences in the light of the Glottalic
Theory of Proto-Indo-European consonants proposed by Th.V. Gamkrelidze and V.V.
Ivanov (pp. 54-60); he also discusses (pp. 61-69) the Proto-Indo-European
laryngeals, about which opinions differ among specialists, especially about the
exact number and phonetic make-up of the laryngeals (see: Winter 1965), trying
to determine their probable phonetic value, with the aid of Afroasiatic
evidence: similar phonemes are known in Accadian and Arabic, and many of the
developments posited by Bomhard for these Proto-Indo-European phonemes ''are
similar to developments found in Coptic'' (p. 69). In such a slippery field,
comparison with other Nostratic proto-languages and daughter languages can help
to handle a question that could not be successfully faced either on the basis of
Indo-European data alone, or positing a multitude of controversial phonemes (as
for instance in Dolgopolsky 2008), instead of the three or four laryngeals
posited by the large majority of linguists for Proto-Indo-European.

About the original Nostratic homeland, the Author – in this going along with
Colin Renfrew - seems to agree with the earlier conclusions of Illiè-Svityè and
Dolgopolsky in postulating a Nostratic ''Urheimat'' within the Mesolithic (or
Epi-paleolithic) Middle East, the stage which directly preceded the Neolithic
and was transitional to it. For Bomhard, the unified Nostratic parent language
may be dated to between 15000 to 12000 BCE, a period which corresponds to the
end of the last Ice Age; and can be located in the ''Fertile Crescent'' (a region
incorporating the Levant and Mesopotamia, corresponding to present-day Iraq,
Syria, Lebanon, Palestine - in its broader meaning, the geographical term
referring to an area that includes contemporary Israel and the Palestinian
territories - Kuwait, Jordan, south-eastern Turkey, and south-western Iran),
just south of the Caucasus. Beginning around 12000 BCE, Nostratic began to
spread; by 10000 BCE distinct dialect groups appeared. The first to distinguish
among Nostratic macro-family was Afrasian; roughly around 9000 BCE, Eurasiatic
spread from the Fertile Crescent to the northeast; at about 8000 BCE another
dialect group, Elamo-Dravidian, began to develop.

The Nostratic hypothesis suffers from a scarcity of evidence from a
morphological point of view, the most part of studies being devoted to
phonology, and this part of Bomhard's work tries to supply to this deficiency in
the first two sections, the former pointing to the presentation of morphological
marks shared by various Nostratic family languages (pp. 273-386), the latter
(pp. 387-415) attempting a systematic reconstruction of a putative
Proto-Nostratic morphology on the basis of that evidence. The last two sections
of this part are devoted to Indo-European morphology; from an exhaustive
presentation of the traditional views, up to the pre-historic development, on
the basis of the chronologization – four main periods: Pre-Proto-Indo-European;
Phonemic Stress Stage of Proto-Indo-European; Phonemic Pitch Stage of
Proto-Indo-European; Disintegrating Proto-Indo-European, described on pp.
101-108 – proposed by the Author for the phonological system; as a result, a new
approach to what the Indo-European morphological system could have been like at
the beginning stage of its maturation process.

The analysis has relied ''almost exclusively on Indo-European data with only
passing reference to what is found in cognate Nostratic languages'' (p. 519). The
Author recognizes that ''the picture that emerges is rather stark and rather
unrealistic.'' However, comparison of Indo-European morphology with other
Nostratic languages morphology tries to show that ''a whole series of relational
markers can be reconstructed for Proto-Nostratic, and at least some of these
must have been inherited by Proto-Indo-European'' (ivi). But the question suffers
from a lack of reconstructions from non Indo-European Nostratic proto-languages,
which at present are not ever of the same level of reconstruction of
Indo-European, surely the most studied proto-language of the last 250 years.

The first part (pp. 273-386), presents morphological evidence for Nostratic,
including Eurasiatic data with Illiè-Svityè's, Dolgopolsky's, and properly
Bomhard's latest intuitions about other branches of Nostratic. According to
Bomhard, Nostratic morphology made a breakthrough with the publication of the
first volume of J.H. Greenberg's ''Indo-European and its closest relatives''
(Greenberg 2000-2002), which included a great amount of morphemic
correspondences among Eurasiatic languages. Where Greenberg did not reconstruct
the Eurasiatic vowels (for instance, for the pronoun stems) Bomhard attempts to
compensate on the basis of the evidence of both Eurasiatic and other Nostratic
languages. The great part of the reconstructions that appear in this full-bodied
chapter, and which form the most part of it, are nearly the same which are
lemmatized in the Comparative vocabulary, sometimes with integrations; repetita
juvant, but maybe, if the Author had unified all these more than hundred-pages
of descriptions in the Vocabulary, commenting them in this chapter devoted to
the evidence, the book could have been more readable.

The following chapter, focused on the systematic Nostratic morphology
reconstruction, is much shorter than the former (pp. 387-415); the Author, on
the basis of evidence for Nostratic morphology, proposes that Proto-Nostratic
was an active language, recognizing that ''the assumption that we make about the
morphological and syntactical structure of a given proto-language profoundly
affects the reconstruction that we propose.... Therefore, it follows that the
reconstruction I posit will conform with an active structure'' (p. 387).
Reconstructions are not to be driven by theory alone, but supported by data, and
must be consistent from a typological perspective; many Authors have presented
convincing arguments about an early phase of Proto-Indo-European as an active
language, as Proto-Afrasian (p. 388), enhancing the possibilities of attempting
a reconstruction of Proto-Nostratic as an active language itself. In the
following two chapters, devoted to Proto-Indo-European morphology (Traditonal
reconstruction, pp. 417-483, and Prehistoric development, pp.485-529), the
Author tries to summarize morphological evidence pointing to underline that
Proto-Indo-European is to be classified as a member of the Eurasiatic branch of
Nostratic, a branch which could develop distinctive characteristics due to
socio-cultural interactions with Caucasian, especially with Northwest languages
(p. 529).

The Comparative Vocabulary contains 857 entries, divided into 42 sections, each
represented by the word-initial Proto-Nostratic phoneme; every section begins
with a table of correspondence between the Proto-Nostratic word-initial phoneme
and its reflex in the daughter branches. Every Proto-Nostratic root is given
with a translation, followed by corresponding form for the proto-language, if
reconstructed, and by the forms in the various daughter languages; not all known
cognates are cited, in order to give only a representative sampling illustrating
the semantics involved. The Author, for the reconstructed forms for each
proto-language, uses a uniform method of transcription; Proto-Indo-European
roots are given in accordance with the reinterpretation of the
Proto-Indo-European phonological system by Gamkrelidze-Ivanov. I hope that in
the near future a third volume, containing all the forms of proto- and attested
languages cited in the previous two, with reference to the corresponding
Proto-Nostratic root, will appear, giving scholars the possibility to operate a
fast and prompt cross-data retrieval, and a differently oriented information
scanning of the invaluable lexical heritage contained in this Comparative
vocabulary. The Author tries here ''to eliminate the arbitrary nature of much of
the previous work, as well as some current work'' (p. 5); Dolgopolsky's Nostratic
Dictionary (Dolgopolsky 2008), with its 3033 entries, has been one of the
sources of Bomhard's Vocabulary, even if most part of Dolgopolsky's etymologies
have been rejected, due to Bomhard's approach, which is ''positivistic, that is,
data-oriented, rather than impressionistic''.

This book represents an invaluable resource for Indoeuropeanists, comparatists,
and specialists in all the linguistic families and languages that, in Bomhard's
and, most generally, in Nostraticists' vision, compose the linguistic mosaic of
Euro-and Afrasia. Its intended audience is probably specialists, but in my view,
some parts of the first volume could also be appreciated by readers with no
specific linguistic background. Bomhard's work is essential for the development
of this field of studies, and gives an immense contribution to development and
implementation of the reconstruction of a putative prehistoric proto-language
which gave origin to several today's language families.

Dolgopolsky, Aharon. 2008. _Nostratic Dictionary_. Cambridge: McDonald Institute
for Archaeological Research, online version:

Bomhard, Allan R. and John C. Kerns. 1994. _The Nostratic Macrofamily: A Study
in Distant Linguistic Relationship_. Berlin, New York, NY, and Amsterdam: Mouton
de Gruyter.

Fortescue, Michael, Steven Jacobson, & Lawrence Kaplan. 1994. _Comparative
Eskimo dictionary with Aleut cognates_. Fairbanks: Alaska Native Language
Center, University of Alaska.

Gell-Mann, Murray, Ilia Peiros, and George Starostin. 2009. Distant Language
Relationship: The Current Perspective. _Journal of Language Relationship_, 1, p.

Greenberg, Joseph H. 2000-2002. _Indo-European and Its Closest Relatives: The
Eurasiatic Language Family_. Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press.

Kaiser, Mark. 1990. Semantic Index to Nostratic Reconstructions. In Vitaly
Shevoroshkin ed., _Proto-languages and proto-cultures: Materials from the First
International Interdisciplinary Symposium on Language and Prehistory, Ann Arbor,
8-12 November, 1988_. Bochum: Brockmeyer, p. 176-197.

Winter, Werner (ed.). 1965. _Evidence for Laryngeals_. The Hague: Mouton.

Simonetta Pelusi, formerly Professor of Slavic Linguistics and Philology,
Cassino and Trieste Universities, has published extensively on synchronic and
diachronic phonology, particularly in the areas of Slavic languages. Her
research interests focus on Common Slavic phonology, on the tradition of
medieval Russian liturgical text, and on old printed book history.

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